Oily hair gets a bad rap, but the sebum your scalp produces is vital to healthy, shiny hair. Despite what shampoo commercials lead you to believe, washing your hair can be a key contributor to a bad hair day. Hair that is completely free of this natural oil can feel coarse and be dull and difficult to style.
Americans are obsessed with being clean. It’s not uncommon for people to wash their hair with astringent shampoo on a daily basis. All of this cleaning can lead to dry, damaged hair. But the culture seems to be swinging the other way, at least in part. There’s a growing push to forgo shampoo altogether or to use conditioning cleansers that do not contain detergents. The “no poo” movement has brought shampoo-free hair care to the mainstream. It’s becoming more common for people to ditch shampoo and let the natural oils balance out with the help of alternative shampoos or plain water.
They may be on to something. Most people don’t need to wash their hair daily, or even every other day. How often you should wash your hair depends on quite a few factors. The basic answer, according to Seattle-based integrative dermatologist Elizabeth Hughes, is that you should wash it once it’s oily and feels unclean to the touch.
There are several factors that can increase your need to wash your hair.
Oil is the biggest culprit behind what we consider “dirty” hair. It can leave hair limp and clumpy. How much oil you produce depends on your age, genetics, sex, and environment. Children and older adults do not produce as much sebum as teenagers or adults in their 20s and 30s. While you may have once struggled with an oily scalp, your scalp can slowly become drier as you age.
“There are some people with really fragile hair that becomes easily damaged with the act of washing. Those people might want to wash their hair every other week,” says Hughes. “There is an enormous range of how often a person might need to wash their hair.”
Some people produce enough oil to need to wash their hair daily, but they are not the majority, according to Hughes. Most people only produce enough oil to wash every couple of days.
2. Type of hair
Straight and thin hair needs to be washed more frequently than curly or wavy hair. Straight hair is easily coated by sebum, which means it looks greasy much faster. Thick, wavy, or curly hair tends to be dry since the oil doesn’t coat the strands as easily. Sebum is an important part of beautiful, well-defined curls, because curly hair needs more moisture to stay soft and prevent frizzing.
African-American hair needs to be washed the least. Overwashing, especially with harsh shampoos, can damage hair and lead to hair loss, especially when combined with chemical treatments or hair styles like tight braids that tug at the roots. People with tight curls or textured hair should wash their hair no more than once a week or every other week, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.
No one is surprised that a sweaty workout can mess up your ’do. How much you sweat is a big factor in how frequently you need to wash, or at least rinse, your hair. Sweat can spread sebum and make your hair look and feel dirty. It can also cause your hair to smell less than fresh. Hughes recommends shampooing after sweaty workouts and anytime you wear a hat or helmet for extended periods of time.
4. Physical dirt or pollen
Gardening, cleaning, and other messy tasks may be cause for a wash. Dirt, dust, and pollen can all get trapped on the hair. Not only will these make your hair look dull, but they can also exacerbate your allergies.
5. Styling products
Styling products can build up on your hair and scalp and lead to irritation and damage. Frequent or heavy product use may mean that you need to wash your hair more frequently than if you skip the creams and sprays.
Shampoo is designed to clean the scalp and remove excess oil. But if it’s overused or if you work it all the way down the length of your hair, shampoo can damage your hair. Shampoo strips the important oils the scalp produces and can leave the hair and scalp too dry. To prevent this, only shampoo the roots of your hair. The ends will be cleaned when you rinse the shampoo out of your roots.
“I see more problems with people overwashing their hair than you would think,” says Hughes. “If people didn’t rely on these detergents so much the quality of people’s skin would probably be better, especially as people get older. People in their 40s and 50s who are still washing their hair and scrubbing themselves as if they were teenagers are really damaging their skin. It takes a long time to fix that.”
Dandruff and shampoo
Your dandruff may actually be a sign of overwashing. Dry hair, itching, and persistent flaking or dandruff are all symptoms of an overly dry scalp. But that doesn’t mean we should all banish washing our hair forever.
“There’s a feeling out there that some of the natural hair oils are helpful for the hair and that’s certainly true, especially for people with curly hair,” says Hughes, “but you don’t need all of the oil you are producing on the hair all the time.”
Shampooing less often is more of a personal preference. Some people may experience itching when they wash less frequently. But for the most part, shampooing less will only change the appearance and feel of the hair. In extreme cases, you can get clogged pores or dandruff. Some people benefit from skipping traditional detergent-based shampoo altogether or using it rarely.
Many beauty blogs and magazines have hailed the following alternatives to traditional shampoos:
Unlike the name suggests, the powder or spray cleaner isn’t actually cleaning your hair. Instead, it’s absorbing some of the oil and preventing your hair from clumping. But dry shampoo certainly has its place. Hughes recommends it for people who physically can’t wash their hair or who want to extend the time between washes.
Washing with conditioner or “cleansing conditioners” is on the rise. Companies like L’Oreal and Pantene have created products that are meant to wash and condition the hair without traditional detergents. Washing with conditioner only is the most beneficial for curly, wavy, or dry hair, according to Hughes. Simply wash your scalp like you would with shampoo. When you are done scrubbing, comb it through and let it sit for a couple of minutes before rinsing it out like normal.
If you wash with conditioner only, be sure to avoid any hair care products, including conditioner, with silicone. Silicone can give your hair a soft, smooth feel, but it can also build up on the hair and make it limp and greasy-looking. Skipping shampoo means that you won’t remove any of the silicone buildup. Ingredients ending in -cone like cyclomethicone, dimethicone, and amodimethicone are all silicone.
Fans of water-only washing tout gorgeous locks and bouncy curls, but there isn’t research on the benefits or downsides of only using water.
“I don’t think there’s anything bad or wrong with [washing with water only], and certainly washing with water will remove actual dirt, pollen, and sweat,” said Hughes. But the water-only method also leaves out any moisturizing you get from conditioner or hydrating shampoos.
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to hair care. How often you wash your hair — and with what — depends greatly on your body, lifestyle, and preferences. The dirtier you get and the more oil you produce, the more often you have to wash your hair.
If you think you are overwashing your hair, try cutting out one wash per week or extending the time between washes by a day. Keep reducing it each week until you like the way your hair and scalp feel.
Alternative shampoos or washing with conditioner are also great options, but for many the adjustment period can be daunting. You don’t have to throw away your favorite shampoo. If you want to cut back on detergent-based shampoos, try adding in another cleaning method for one of your washes each week.
Hughes recommends giving any change in hair washing at least a month before you decide if it’s working. This gives your hair and scalp time to adjust.
Unless you apply styling products, your shampoo is only meant to cleanse your scalp. Don’t wash the ends of your hair with it. The ends of your hair are the oldest, most fragile portions, and they need special care like added moisture.
Conditioner is one of the most important steps for healthy hair, according to a report from Johns Hopkins. While everyone can benefit from conditioner, people with dry hair should use conditioner every time they wash their hair. Pay special attention to the ends of your hair when you use conditioner. Despite what most people think, applying conditioner to your scalp can also be beneficial if you have a dry scalp or curly hair. No matter what, only you can find the right balance of cleanliness and moisture for your hair.